The Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Troubling Transformation
Obama’s trusted partner in peace becomes more aggressive.
Despite the guidelines of the nuclear deal and contrary to President Obama’s claim that Iran will temper its foreign policy, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is actively transforming the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ operation. This will have significant impact on regional geopolitics and US national security.
The Islamic Republic used to deploy the Quds Force, which has been designated as a supporter of terrorism by the State Department and is a paramilitary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Its purpose is to engage in irregular warfare operations, extraterritorial interventions, foreign policy missions, and interference in the affairs of other countries. The Quds Force has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 personnel.
Recent developments clearly indicate that Iranian leaders are transforming the whole Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into an organization that operates like the Quds Force in order to achieve Iran’s Islamist, ideological, geopolitical and strategic goals, as well as its expansionist objectives.
Unlike the Quds Force, the IRGC has an estimated 100,000-200,000 military personnel. IRGC also funds, arms, trains, and controls other domestic and foreign militia groups such as Iran’s paramilitary Basij militia, which has approximately 90,000 personnel, Hezbollah, with an estimated 20,000-30,000 fighters, as well as several other Shiite militia groups in Iraq, Yemen, and throughout the region.
Iranian news media outlets used to downplay the IRGC’s role in other nations. But recently, Iran’s official news agency, Fars news, reported that several members of the Revolutionary Guard – including Mostafa Sadrzadeh, Milad Mostafavi, and Brigadier General Reza Khavari, the senior commander of IRGC’s Fatemiyoun Division – were among other fighters who were killed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. So far more than 100 IRGC fighters have been killed in Syria.
Iranian media and officials once characterized IRGC involvement in Syria as limited to advisory roles, providing tactical assistance, engaging in strategic planning, and providing intelligence.
But in the last few weeks, reports of public funerals have risen, putting the Quds Force in the public eye. Even the Supreme Leader has become more public. He tweeted about one of the Iranian fighters who died in Syria, posted a picture of him with the “martyred” family, and pointed out that “Gen. Hamedani devoted the final years of his fruitful life to fighting against anti-Islam Takfiris and fulfilled his martyrdom wish in the same front.”
Iran is increasing the amount of its IRGC fighters in Syria, with a concentration of forces in the critical cities of Allepo, Latakia, and Damascus, to prevent the fall of these strategic locations to the opposition.
While Iranian leaders project the image that they are fighting the Islamic State, Iranian forces are not positioned close to any IS stranglehold. Instead, they appear to be battling Syrian rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, in an attempt to force them to retreat, preventing them from capturing more territories in Allepo, Latakia and Damascus.
There are several reasons behind this tactical and IRGC organizational shift. First of all, the policy of the Obama administration is to appease Iran. This is made clear by its weak stance toward Iran. This allows Iran’s interventionist operations to be strengthened, and has empowered and transformed Tehran’s military organizations.
Secondly, The Islamic Republic pushed for Russia’s military assistance and involvement in Syria. The setbacks that Assad’s army and the Quds Force encountered in early 2015, mainly due to rise of the Islamic State and rebel groups advancements, propelled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani to visit Putin and ask for military help.
Nevertheless, Russia’s military superiority and interventions in Latakia did overshadow and bring into question Iran’s influence in Syria. By resorting to the IRGC and public acknowledgments of Iranian fighters operating on the ground in Syria, the Islamic Republic strives to reassert its presence in Syria.
In addition, the increasing Russian airstrikes are coordinated with the rising deployment of IRGC fighters on the ground. This inevitably will lead to a rise in Iranian casualties. Throughout these shifts, Assad has become increasingly dependent on Iran’s IRGC and Russia.
Furthermore, before the rise of the Islamic State, Iran played down its military role in the region because Tehran did not have a legitimate excuse to justify its presence in Syria. Iranian leaders were also worried about a direct confrontation with the West and other regional powers. They attempted to prevent the scuttling of nuclear negotiations. But after the nuclear deal was reached, and after the Islamic State grabbed global headlines, the Islamic Republic’s policy shifted in order to transform the IRGC’s function.
In the pursuit of hegemonic ambitions, Iran seizes any opportunity to reassert its regional supremacy, power and preeminence. By transforming the IRGC into a foreign offensive and interventionist force in other countries, by essentially making IRGC a regional military empire, and by announcing publicly that IRGC troops are present in Syria, Iran is demonstrating its hegemonic, Islamist, and powerful role in the region.
Although some policy analysts and scholars argue that the increasing death toll of Iranian fighters might change the IRGC’s decision to support the Syrian dictator, it is not likely that there will be any change in Iran’s policy of backing Assad. Tehran’s stakes in keeping Assad’s regime in power are high. Iran can afford several more years of assistance for the Syrian army and will continue to provide military, financial, advisory and intelligence support.
In closing, it is clear that the Islamic Republic is transforming the whole ideological and militaristic empire of the IRGC into an interventionist force which will operate in foreign countries for the purpose of fulfilling expansionist and Islamists objectives.